Saturday, January 24, 2009

Haarsmas' book--a third look

Before I address the primary issues I wanted to talk about today, I realize I should say something about the subtitle of the Haarsmas' book, Origins. Specifically, as I mentioned a few days ago, it is subtitled "A Reformed Look at Creation, Design, & Evolution."

Let me suggest why I think it has this subtitle.

The Haarsmas teach at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, a school sponsored by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in North America. Deborah did not grow up in the CRC. It seems clear that Loren did. Being professors at a CRC-sponsored institution, they recognize they have to abide by the doctrinal standards established by that denomination. Beyond that, their book is published by Faith Alive, the denominational publishing house of the CRC.

As a result, the book seeks to make special appeal to that denomination's audience by including the word "Reformed" in its title. It also includes, in Chapter 1 a brief (one and a half paragraph) reference to and quote from an official statement on origins made by the synod (the highest decision-making body) of the Christian Reformed Church in 1991; and it includes 8 pages (Appendices A and C) that quote the full texts of two statements of the CRC synod--from 1972 ("On Biblical Authority"), and 1991 ("On Origins"). Early in Chapter 1 the Haarsmas also include a sidebar in which they explain that they use the word "Reformed" with no intention to divide, but as a kind of "explanation" of the "flavor" of their presentation. Whereas someone else might quote more readily from the Church Fathers or Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther or John Wesley, the Haarsmas tend to quote more often from John Calvin. Their thinking is also flavored a bit more heavily than many with an acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God.

I appreciate the Haarsmas' candor. Based on my experience of both the CRC and of the broad evangelical Christian movement, I would like to think that any and every evangelical Christian should find him- or herself quite at home not only with the book's text, but with the manner in which the Haarsmas use Scripture and address their subject.

I thought I should mention these things only because Sarita, who was raised in the CRC, exclaimed over the reference to a denominational statement. She found it troublesome for the Haarsmas to have included such "narrow" references.

Personally, they didn't bother me. And as someone who is used to reading carefully parsed and finely stated theological documents, I actually appreciated being able to consider such statements in the Haarsmas' book.

But Sarita's comments awakened me to my need at least to "forewarn" you. Just in case you, like Sarita, might have some kind of strong (negative) reactions to seeing someone quote their denominational standards.



On to the primary subject matter I wanted to address today.

In keeping with their over-all plan of introducing a wide variety of options, the Haarsmas discuss five different uses and/or meanings of the word evolution. Specifically, they define and describe the significance of
  • Microevolution.
  • Pattern of change over time.
  • Common ancestry.
  • Theory of evolution.
  • Evolutionism.
Having already explained the key differences between science and worldview, the Haarsmas note that evolutionism is in a category by itself compared to the other four because evolutionism "does not refer to science but to a set of worldview beliefs." Specifically, "It refers to the ways in which some people try to use the theory of evolution to support certain atheistic beliefs. . . . When the theory of evolution is used to argue for atheistic beliefs, it is rightly called evolutionism." (p. 153; emphasis added.)

"All Christians are united against evolutionism," write the Haarsmas, "but [they] disagree with each other about the best strategy for combating it."
To illustrate this, let's take a simplified argument for evolutionism. . . .

Premise 1: If the theory of evolution is true, then Christianity is false when it says that God created all the plants and animals.
Premise 2: Science shows that the theory of evolution is true.
Conclusion: Christianity is false.

Young earth creationists [Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis would be a good example] and progressive creationists [Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe would be a good example] combat evolutionism by attacking the second premise. They argue that the scientific evidence does not support the theory of evolution.

Evolutionary creationists combat evolutionism by attacking the first premise. They argue that the Bible does not teach against evolution and that God could work through biological evolution just as he works through other scientifically understandable natural processes.

--p. 156.

A question I had never considered before (though quite similar to the one I have been asking, for years, about the ability of old- and young-earth creationists even to talk with one another): Can Christian young-earth creationists and Christian [old-earth] progressive creationists work together with Christian [old-earth]evolutionists to meet the needs of Christian young people (and older) who really and truly just don't know what to make of all the competing claims?

The Haarsmas suggest we can . . . and should. And in order to do so, they tell the composite story of Jennifer, a young Christian woman, raised in a young-earth creationist home and church, who went off to college in hopes of becoming a medical doctor. Prior to leaving, Jennifer was strongly warned to beware of the wiles of atheist biology professors who would attempt to dissuade her from her faith by means of their teaching about evolution.

As it turned out, her professor for introductory biology, Dr. Bensen, was no atheist. Instead, he was a vibrant leader in the campus Christian ministry Jennifer joined when she went to school. She enjoyed Professor Bensen's class well enough, but at some point realized he was using a textbook that taught evolution as fact . . . and he said nothing in any of his lectures to call the text into question.

Was he compromising his faith?

Jennifer was completely befuddled. What was going on?

She decided to talk with him.

When she asked her questions,
Professor Bensen carefully explained that a great deal of scientific evidence clearly supports evolution. He said that it was right for a Christian to believe that the theory of evolution is correct because scientific evidence supports it and because the Bible doesn't teach against it.

When Jennifer left the professor's office her head was buzzing. She was more confused than when she entered. This was the first time she had heard anything like this.

Jennifer had great respect for Professor Bensen. She had seen the professor's faith in action many times. But if he was right, then her pastor, Sunday school teachers, and parents must be wrong, and she had great respect for them, too. She didn't know whom to believe or where to go for answers.

--pp. 146-147.

So what was going on?

At the conclusion of the chapter in which they discuss the various definitions and uses of evolution, the Haarsmas write:
Jennifer's [parents and the leaders in her church back home] actually have a lot in common with [Professor Bensen]. They agree about who created everything, who redeemed them, and how they should live out the Christian life. They also agree that the atheistic philosophy of evolutionism is wrong. But they disagree about how best to challenge it.

Jennifer's Sunday school teachers believe it's best to confront the theory of evolution. Professor Bensen believes the theory of evolution is a good scientific model and instead confronts the philosophical claims of evolutionism directly. By maintaining a charitable attitude toward each other, Christians who advocate different responses to evolution need not break their unity as believers who work side-by-side to advance God's kingdom.

Imagine what might have happened if Jennifer hadn’t met Professor Bensen. She might have taken a course from a stridently atheistic professor who promoted evolutionism. If so, she might have dropped the course and given up the idea of becoming a doctor. More likely, she might have taken a course from a professor who simply presented the scientific evidence for evolution and never mentioned religion. As the evidence piled up, it could have caused Jennifer to question everything she learned from her church back home.

Neither outcome is desirable.

Jennifer's parents and teachers were rightly concerned about evolutionism, but they put Jennifer in a painful position by giving her only two options: young earth creationism or atheistic evolutionism.

When students are forced to choose between these two, they may either turn away from a career in science or pursue science but turn away from God. A far better approach [we think] is to teach young people about a range of Christian positions on evolution, giving them some options for how to keep their faith when they encounter the theory of evolution.

--pp. 158-159.

And that, of course, is what the Haarsmas do in their wonderful book.


A couple of more comments and then I'll quit.

First, I want to mention an insight the Haarsmas offer concerning God's providence and the implications of having God create through what we might call "natural" rather than "supernatural" or "miraculous" means.

Chapter 2,dedicated to a discussion of worldviews and science, discusses issues like providence (God's "normal" operation of nature) and miracles. In essence, the Haarsmas ask, what is the distinction between providence and miracle?

Referencing Donald MacKay, a Christian physicist, they offer an analogy for providence that MacKay uses in his book The Open Mind and Other Essays. As I think about the world in light of the analogy, I have to wonder: what is the real difference between [relatively] slow or "normal/natural" processes and the things we tend normally to think of as "miraculous"?

In summary, they say, "[A] god who becomes unnecessary as soon as humans find a scientific explanation for how the world works is not the God of the Bible! The Bible clearly teaches that natural, ordinary events are governed by God. God is active not only in dramatic supernatural events, but also in the ordinary change of the seasons. This view of God is displayed in Psalm 104:19-24."

In an allusion to Colossians 1:17, MacKay says, "The continuing existence of our world . . . hangs moment by moment on the continuance of the upholding word of power of its Creator."

MacKay suggests that things look stable and unchanging not because they are so in some kind of internal, self-existent manner, but because, like a computerized game, they have been programmed to look that way.

Think of a computerized game of billiards.
The balls follow all the rules you'd expect: they go faster if you hit them harder; they roll in straight lines; and they bounce off the sidewalls or off each other.

On the computer screen, the balls appear solid and self-existent, and they follow regular, repeatable patterns of behavior (the "natural laws" of the computer game). But that doesn't mean that the electronic pool balls will continue to exist when you pull the plug on the computer! The pool balls are not solid and stable on their own. Rather, the computer constantly sends signals to the screen to update and maintain the image.

The laws that govern the motion of the balls aren't stable on their own either: if a glitch occurs in the program, the balls will freeze and no longer follow the rules.

Similarly, MacKay says, the matter, energy, and laws of nature of this universe are not of themselves intrinsically self-existing and stable; nor did God simply start them off and then leave them alone.

--pp. 37-38.

So God does a miracle. Is He "fighting" or "breaking" the laws of nature? Or is He jiggering a program He created?

Clearly, the miracle will astonish, astound and startle those of us who are "in" or part of the "game." But for God: "Is anything too great for Him?"

Finally. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote some comments about creationism and evolutionism on a website owned by someone who is clearly pro-evolution and, together with his friends, is generally antipathetic to an evangelical worldview. I noted at the time something I wrote here a few days ago: something about how strongly the young-earth creationists seem to control the evangelical homeschooling movement at this time.

In the last few days, since reading Origins and Beyond the Firmament, I have realized how completely the young-earth creationists have controlled my thoughts, too.

I have been wholly taken with the issues that they have established as of prime importance. I have been focused on books and papers that they have published and/or with the writings of people like Hugh Ross and the leaders of the Intelligent Design movement whom they have "taken on" as of primary significance in the origins debates. I have completely ignored the work and writings of evangelical Christian evolutionists like the Haarsmas, Glover, Howard van Till, and National Human Genome Research Institute Director Dr. Francis Collins. It's as if these "others" didn't exist.

And at this point, I'm embarrassed by my omission.

The Haarsmas present bare summary outlines of the evidence modern evolutionists put forward for their views. --It is far deeper than what I was aware of just a few months ago.

The young-earthers, progressive creationists and a large proportion of the Intelligent Design proponents have all said an evolutionary perspective cannot possibly stand . . . and I have read all the reasons they are convinced such a view is illegitimate. Now I think it is time I become better informed about the evidence for such a perspective.

A month or two ago, I ran across and began reading a book, Relics of Eden, that presents a popular summary of what the author claims to be genetic evidence for common descent. The Haarsmas offer an extremely condensed version of some of the same data . . . along with several other lines of evidence . . . of which some I was aware (via the young-earthers, IDers, and progressive creationists), and some I was not.

Suffice to say: the Haarsmas' summaries put these data in a very different light.

I look forward to reading more!


Oh. PS. I can't afford the internet connection from where I am. But when I get home, I look forward to reading some of the materials the Haarsmas reference on their website: Faith Alive Resources: Origins.
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